Can you do a 3-day volunteer trip? Yes, you can. And you should. It will feed your soul in a way that no other vacation can. Plus, you can bring your high school-aged children if you want. A good place to start is with a trip to Houston or Puerto Rico. Even though they were slammed by hurricanes last summer, both places have thousands of people and many charities who still need help.
Our 3-day Volunteer Trip
Volunteer trips always appealed to me, but most require at least a one-week commitment – more time than I had to spare. When I heard about a 3-day volunteer trip through NECHAMA to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, I was immediately on board. I didn’t know what to expect, since I’d never done a trip like this before. But it turned out to be a memorable, moving experience to which no girls’ getaway or a spa weekend could ever compare.
There’s one scene from our 3-day trip that stands out in my memory.
The work day was winding up. Our six-person group was taking off our dirty gloves and putting away the tools we’d used to remove drywall, nails and debris from a flood-ravaged home. We’d piled giant rows of garbage on the curb in front of the house.
A young man who lived there – a friendly 20-something guy named Byron – worked side-by-side with us all day and shared his story about the catastrophic storm. After more than 50 inches of rain fell (!), his entire neighborhood and the first floor of his family’s two-story home was underwater. They were trapped on the second floor for two days until help arrived. Finally, a canoe floated through their front door (!) and rescuers took his handicapped mother out before returning to get everyone else.
It sounded surreal, and awful.
After the water receded, Byron’s family continued to live upstairs without a kitchen. FEMA wouldn’t help them repair their home until everything was removed and all the first-floor walls came down to the studs. It was too much work for one or two people to do. Contractors weren’t available or affordable. So they turned to charitable groups like ours, NECHAMA. In two days, our team helped make his first floor FEMA-compliant. He thanked and hugged each of us repeatedly.
“That is real”
As we prepared to leave, Byron walked to the end of the driveway to take a photo with us and ask us one last thing.
“So, let me get this straight,” he said. “You came all the way from Chicago to do this? To help me?”
Yes, we said.
“Man, that is real. That is REAL,” he said shaking his head, his eyes facing the ground and welling up with emotion. We hugged him again.
Real was the perfect word. It was real. Real natural disaster, real people, real compassion. For me, it was a real feeling that, in just a few days, I could make a difference in someone’s life. We met a few of the flood victims whose homes we helped clean, listened to their stories, showed compassion, and offered hope.
The experience truly put my problems into perspective. At home, my focus is on my kids and my work. Switching my attention to the bigger-picture, and helping others during their tough times, proved to be a powerful experience.
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Where to find a short-term volunteer trip
Our trip to help hurricane victims in Houston was done through NECHAMA, a Jewish disaster relief organization that helps people of all denominations. The volunteers were a mix of Jews and non-Jews. At one job site, an Orthodox Christian disaster relief group and NECHAMA worked together. Our temple, Beth Tikvah Congregation in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, organized the trip. But you don’t have to go in groups – you can sign up as an individual on NECHAMA’s website.
You can volunteer for as many days as you want – even just one day!
Questions about NECHAMA
Q. What are the accommodations like?
A. You can stay for free on cots in a nearby church, where they’ll provide you with a shower and meals made by volunteers. We opted to eat in restaurants and stay in a DoubleTree Suites Houston-Galleria, because after a hard day of dirty work, we were willing to splurge for a long shower and a mattress (and one of DoubleTree’s famous chocolate chip cookies).
Q. Can kids come?
A. Ages 14 and up are welcome. Just remember, it’s hard physical labor and dirty work. You work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a lunch break. If they’re not interested (or able) to work all day, best to wait until they’re a little older.
Q. Is it well organized?
A. In my experience, yes. Each morning, we got the address of the home where we’d be working that day and drove ourselves there. When we arrived, someone from NEMCHAMA met us, explained what we’d be doing, gave us the supplies we needed, and then stayed in our work area to help us if we had any problems or questions. The NECHMAMA staff was all super nice and grateful for our help.
Q. What will it cost?
A. You must pay your own way to travel to and from the disaster location, plus any meals you don’t eat at the church.
Read about another TravelingMom’s volunteer vacation – at an animal sanctuary in Utah or get some ideas from this TravelingMom post on easy family volunteering ideas.